Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 17 January 2000 (continued)
9. Mr McMenamin asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he will consider setting up tax free enterprise zones in areas of West Tyrone, particularly Strabane. (AQO 12/99)
Sir Reg Empey:
This is a matter for the Minister of the Environment. I will ask him to write to the Member on the subject.
10. Mr Ford asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment if he will ensure alternative employment for those made redundant as a result of the closure of the Norfil factory in Antrim. (AQO 1/99)
Sir Reg Empey:
This issue is a matter for the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. I will ask him to write to the Member on the subject.
Will Members clarify whether they are trying to ask questions or are simply winking at me. [Laughter]. In some cases they are referring to previous questions or subsequent questions or other things of that nature. As I said earlier-
Mr S Wilson:
You did not know that you had that many admirers. [Laughter]
I shall not add to any Member's embarrassment by indicating who it may have been. The appropriate way of indicating a wish to ask a supplementary question is to rise when the question, or a supplementary, is being asked. For the sake of my sanity, and to avoid confusion, I appeal to Members to use the conventional way of doing this.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This procedure might work better if the Ministers were to stay on their feet long enough for another Member to stand up. As the Minister was up and down so fast in relation to question 9 it was impossible to fully rise to one's feet.
Members should not underestimate the speed with which some of our Ministers now move.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. What is the Member expected to do if you wink back? [Laughter]
Mr S Wilson:
Are you talking about league positions?
As I responded to the Member's earlier remark I will not say anything about who was winking at whom. The time for that set of questions is up.
Walsh Visa Programme
1. Mr McMenamin asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to give a specific date for the commencement of the Walsh visa programme. (AQO 11/99)
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):
I will begin by giving Members a brief background to the Walsh visa programme. The programme is the result of an initiative taken by Congressman Jim Walsh in the United States Legislature. It provides for up to 4,000 working visas per year for three years to residents of Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic of Ireland. The visas will enable recipients to live and gain work experience in the United States for up to three years. The primary target group is the unemployed.
Specifically with respect to Mr McMenamin's question, the programme has been jointly developed by the Training and Employment Agency (T&EA) and the FÁS Agency (the Irish training authority), in conjunction with the relevant United States authorities. The first group of about 40 participants from Northern Ireland will enter the pre-departure orientation programme on 14 February. After completing that programme they will go to the United States and take up employment in the latter half of March. Members should know that during discussions on the programme with the United States authorities two areas of job opportunities - although it may not be these areas exclusively - were identified. They are in the areas of information and communications technology, and tourism and hospitality. Obviously, experience gained in both of these employment sectors would be particularly relevant and beneficial to our economy when the participants return home, as they are required to do under the terms of the Walsh visa programme.
This is a marvellous opportunity for young people of both traditions in Northern Ireland to go to America and work, as the Minister said, for a period of up to three years. This is one programme which I would like to see young people aged from 18 to 35 from the Unionist tradition take up. It is a marvellous opportunity.
If there is a question implied in what has been said, I take it that it is with respect to the participation rates in the programme from the two communities. The Member, and all Members of the House, should rest assured that the Training and Employment Agency, which is responsible for recruitment to the programme, is endeavouring to ensure that the benefits of the programme will be brought to the attention of all sections of the community. This will ensure that there is an extremely balanced participation rate in it. I am very anxious indeed to see this achieved. We shall certainly monitor the first intake to the programme, and what they achieve on the ground in the United States, very carefully.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Can the Minister confirm to the House how he intends to fulfil the equality aspects of which he has spoken? What proportion of applicants for the programme will be from the Protestant tradition, and what proportion will be from the Roman Catholic?
With respect to the second part of the question, we have not set particular targets. However, we are obviously monitoring the publicity exercise to ensure that information about the Walsh visa programme reaches all sections of the community. Depending, of course, on the response from individuals, we will again monitor those applications which come forward, learning lessons as we go along. I assure the Member that we will endeavour to ensure a balanced participation rate in the programme. It is certainly an issue very close to my own concerns.
With respect to the first part of the Member's question, as I understood it, monitoring will be an ongoing part of the whole process. We are working very closely with Foras Áiseanna Saothair and, indeed, with the United States authorities, to ensure that those who participate are placed in worthwhile employment. Employment has been targeted at those areas, experience of which, we believe, would benefit the participants themselves and, indeed, our own economy. We will monitor not just their experience in the workplace, but the requirements for participation in the programme. This will enable them to take part, as far as possible, in further developing their own educational experience of the United States through dedicated programmes provided through appropriate educational and training agencies there.
I welcome the Minister's assurance on parity of provision. May I ask him what consideration has been given to those 4,000 visas per year? We have mentioned the unemployed, but if we look at that particular item as a basic criterion, there are certain circumstances in which it might not be helpful.
Would he consider retraining people who require new skills rapidly for emerging industries?
I thank the Member for that very important question. With respect to the administration of the scheme, the Training and Employment Agency will be exclusively recruiting amongst the unemployed. I said in my first answer that, while the unemployed would be the main target, they would not be the only one for the Walsh visa programme. There will be limited scope for employers to sponsor workers, particularly for the purpose that the Member has identified. Where an employer believes that members of the workforce would benefit through becoming familiar with new areas of expertise, by acquiring and developing new skills within a particular form of employment, there will be some scope in the Walsh visa programme for that. We have to bear in mind that the main focus is the unemployed. That is the basis on which the programme was devised. We are obliged, within the terms of the programme, to keep that focus. Nonetheless, there is some scope for employers to use it in the manner that I have just indicated.
2. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment what steps he proposes to take to address the huge annual outflow of undergraduates from Northern Ireland into tertiary level institutions in the rest of the United Kingdom. (AQO 9/99)
3. Mr Neeson asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment if he will accept the recommendations of the Dearing Report that indicates a shortage of 5,000 university places in Northern Ireland, and what he will do to overcome the shortage. (AQO 5/99)
I will take these questions 2 and 3 together. They address an issue which is of considerable concern to those who have an interest in, and are involved in, higher education. A large number of undergraduates pursue courses in institutions outside Northern Ireland. The Dearing Report has underlined this. It is important for Members to know that the number of places in further and higher education has grown considerably over several years. Since 1993 the number of undergraduate places has risen by 44%. My predecessor indicated earlier last year that he was increasing the number of places in both further and higher education by 2,600 between September 1999 and the year 2002.
Considerable effort is being made to address this issue. I am in regular contact with the university authorities, and I have had several meetings since taking up my present appointment. We have been addressing this, amongst other things. It is very much to the forefront of the Department's concerns. I am anxious to ensure that we can increase the number of places available to our undergraduates. It is heartening, in one respect at least, that the most recent figures from the universities admission service indicate that there has been a 7% increase in the number of Northern Ireland-domiciled students taking up their undergraduate studies here and a considerable reduction in the number going to Great Britain.
Members who follow this issue will know that there are sometimes financial reasons for taking this decision. In any case, our universities are at capacity. If we could provide more places, our undergraduates would be willing to take them, but any further enhancement of the level of provision would have obvious implications. We have been addressing the matter, and as far as possible we will continue to do so.
Mr K Robinson:
Does the Minister agree that it ill serves the concept of equality and parity of esteem if the brightest students from one section of our community continue, for whatever reason, to seek their tertiary education in some other part of this kingdom? As a matter of urgency, will he take steps to quantify the cumulative effect of this loss to the Unionist Protestant community, inquire into the reasons which cause many reluctantly to migrate, and set in motion a series of measures to ensure that this serious imbalance is addressed? Will he, furthermore, bring these matters to the attention of his Colleague, junior Minister Haughey, who is charged with monitoring the equality agenda?
I will take on board all the points the Member has made. I have made it clear in some of my public comments over the last two months that I am anxious to see applicants for higher education from Northern Ireland considering our local institutions among their top preferences. I urge parents and those who have responsibility for giving guidance in this respect to bring that point home to our young people. Our universities have a high reputation right across their various subject areas.
The Member must appreciate that competition for places is keen. As I have said, our universities are at capacity. It is likely that there will always be some who move away voluntarily, but there are also reluctant leavers. It is an objective of my Department to reduce the number of reluctant leavers, from whatever section of the community, and to encourage all to apply for places in our own institutions. The provision of more places, when available resources make that possible, is very much part of our agenda. I want to see a proper community balance, with equality of respect and understanding being encouraged and fostered. Where better to look for leadership in this respect than to our universities and the student bodies within them?
I appreciate that there is a linkage between Mr K Robinson's question and my own. In view of the new political environment in Northern Ireland, there is a direct link between educational facilities, particularly in higher education, and inward investment, particularly in the new high-tech industries. Does the Minister agree that the targets set by his predecessor are not high enough to enable us to maximise those opportunities and take full advantage of the new political environment?
As I have said, we are keeping the number of places available under review. Where it is possible to increase numbers, we will.
In light of the linkage that the Member has referred to, it is important, in allocating the additional places that have been becoming available since last September, to attempt to ensure that they are distributed to those courses which can best serve Northern Ireland in terms of particular needs within the economic development programmes.
Attempts have been made to encourage the expansion of provision in the universities in the areas of software development, software engineering and other courses related to new technologies so that when new, additional, places are made available, they will be taken up in these areas.
To return to the point I made earlier, there are regular contacts and discussions with the universities to see how best to use the additional places. Additional places, over and above those announced by my predecessor, will be part of the programme beyond 2002.
I appeal to both questioners and respondents to be reasonably brief. I know that one Minister was so brief that some of the questioners could not get to their feet, but some kind of balance needs to be achieved. Two-thirds of the time has gone, and only the second or third question has been reached.
I ask the Minister to comment on the latest figures relating to the religious balance of students at Queen's University and the University of Ulster. Does he agree that both are becoming "cold houses" for students from the Unionist community?
Perhaps this question is anticipating a question which has been put by a colleague of the Member. That question asked for some breakdown. I appreciate that it is difficult to take in statistics, such as those that were prepared for me for that answer, but they partly address the Member's question. However, the statistics provide an overall breakdown, rather than a breakdown by institution.
I have been made aware of what, from some perspectives, might be regarded as an imbalance. Imbalances can only be determined with respect to the overall demographic balance of the community, but I know that these can be said to exist on a religious-affiliation basis in both the universities. However, some of the points I made earlier about equality and parity of esteem apply in answering how I view this emerging situation. I do not want to see a situation where large numbers of young people from one community are, disproportionately, leaving to pursue their higher education for reasons other than what might be regarded as strictly educational. Those, of course, are not the only reasons young people leave.
It is a matter of concern and one on which political parties on all sides of the community should come together to see how it can be addressed.
Given that a shortage of student places in Northern Ireland was identified in the Dearing Report, which highlighted a need for some 12,000 additional places, what plans has the Minister's Department for implementing its findings? Also, which of the report's four options for dealing with the shortage of places is favoured by his Department?
I am anxious to ensure that places are increased across the board where there are particular demands.
And I have indicated that we want to see places made available particularly in those areas which have an important economic spin-off. I am sure that Mr Weir, given his background, will know that the university with which he is particularly associated is very anxious to play a full part in any expansion. For example, we are opening new undergraduate programmes in the two colleges of education. Both of our colleges of education have been mono-technique in the sense that they have been exclusively concerned with teacher education. Now they are beginning to diversify. There is already a diversification progamme in operation in Stranmillis College - or Stranmillis University College, as it is now designated. In the next academic year St Mary's University College will also be part of that diversification programme. Those are two examples of innovation with respect to the provision of additional places.
We have a problem. There are so many supplementary questions that Members who have taken the trouble to put down questions and have them through the ballot are finding that they are not going to get to those. I must therefore call for the next question.
4. Mrs E Bell asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment if he will implement the findings of the Cubie Report on student finance in Northern Ireland. (AQO 6/99)
8. Ms Lewsley asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment if he has received a copy of the Cubie Report on student finance and, if so, what lessons can be drawn from it and whether the guidelines will be used as terms of reference for implementation in Northern Ireland.
This question refers to one of the issues that has attracted considerable attention in my Department, that of student financial support. On taking up office I indicated that I wanted the issue to be reviewed. We are aware that since the Scottish Parliament was elected and its Executive formed, this matter has been of considerable concern to them. Members will recall that it was one of the matters on which the coalition there was formed - indeed, might not have been formed.
Order. I was advised by the Minister's Department that he was taking questions 4 and 8 together. I would not have made an assumption except that earlier on he described himself as bringing two questions together. I just wanted to check if this is the case.
Yes, Mr Speaker. I should perhaps have indicated that this question and the final one on the list cover the same issues.
The Cubie Report, which addressed this issue in Scotland, was published just before Christmas. I have read it and have been studying it since its publication. My Department is looking at it, but so too are the Scottish authorities. A ministerial committee has been established there, chaired by the First Minister himself, to address the recommendations in the Cubie Report. No final decisions have been taken on the report, but I anticipate early consultation with our Scottish colleagues. Indeed, officials will soon be travelling to Scotland, and I will very shortly be announcing the terms of a review that, I trust, will be taken expeditiously and which will take on board the Cubie Report recommendations so that we can have a full debate on the matter.
Our political institutions are intended to address our own issues in our own way. Therefore, while taking account of the wider context in which we operate, I think that it would be inappropriate for us simply to take from the shelf a set of recommendations made in another, albeit closely allied, context and deem them suitable for our situation, though they may suit the Scottish one.
Mrs E Bell:
I thank the Minister for his very frank answer, but I would say once again - simply to copperfasten the point - that one of the main recommendations of the 52 that Cubie has put forward is that student or parental contributions to tuition fees should be abolished. As Members know, that is one of the kernels of the problem here, and it is one of the things that we want to see abolished so that access to education is open to all.
While the Minister has said that he is taking on board the Cubie Report - and I am glad to see that he is looking at the review - would he agree that it is one of the advantages of having devolution throughout these islands that we can look at these matters and work at them together? While we need not take the recommendations slavishly on board, they should form the basis of the review, and there are many matters such as disability and benefits that are also relevant here. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I am asking the Minister to look at the recommendations seriously so that we can learn from them.
I really must appeal to both questioners and respondents to be more brief, otherwise we will simply find that we are unable to get through our business. In this case even the combined questions will not facilitate a supplementary one.
Briefly, the answer is yes, yes, yes and yes.
The Minister spoke earlier about the possibility of his own review and consultation. Will his recommendations be referred to the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee, or will he consider setting up a separate, independent Committee to look at his recommendations and how they could be implemented in Northern Ireland?
The brief answer is that the format of the review has not yet been finally determined. However, we have a Committee which is at liberty to debate, discuss and, indeed, investigate these issues. I would certainly welcome its views.
Our time, I am afraid, for those questions is up. We move on to questions to the Minister for Social Development.
1. Mr Maskey asked the Minister for Social Development, given the ongoing housing demand in West Belfast and many other constituencies, if he has yet considered re-establishing the role of the Housing Executive as main provider of new-build housing. (AQO 29/99)
The Minister for Social Development (Mr Dodds): I am tempted to copy the penultimate answer given by the previous Minister and just say "No, no, no, no", but I will add that, as part of my overall responsibility, I will be reviewing a wide range of housing policies. In considering a new Bill on social housing I have to take cognizance of the fact that, unlike the Housing Executive, housing associations can obtain private finance. This means that they can build more houses for the amount of public subsidy given to the Housing Executive, thus providing better value for public money.
Does the Minister intend to bring forward plans to allow senior citizens in Northern Ireland who rent Housing Executive property to buy that property? My understanding is that whether you are in a Housing Executive property for one year or 20 years, once you reach the age of 60, you are not allowed to buy that property.
At some point during this calendar year we hope to be in a position to bring forward legislation on a whole range of housing policy areas. The issue that the Member has raised is an issue that I will certainly look at. Representations have also been made to me on that issue by other Members, and I will certainly look very closely at it.
I thank the Minister, Mr Dodds, for his first response, but let me follow on with the reason behind the question. I accept that the Minister has only just taken up his post and will take some time to consider these issues. However, it is unacceptable, given the high demand for housing and the few houses available in certain areas for allocation, that people in many constituencies have to be on a priority housing list or an emergency housing list before they can even be considered for a house. Consequently, people can be on the waiting list for public housing for years before they have a chance of being re-housed.
I am well aware of the long waiting lists in certain parts of Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland. There are a number of reasons for that, but, in terms of meeting housing needs, there are issues regarding the provision of a roof over people's heads - which is absolutely necessary. There is also the matter of ensuring that the roof over people's heads, and the walls which surround them, ensure that their house is fit for habitation. There are a whole range of issues regarding housing need. It is also vital to point out, coming back to the original question, that in terms of resources the amount of money spent on housing need, as a result of Housing Associations' having been given responsibility for new build, is about £35 million this year alone. An extra £35 million of public money would have to be found if the Housing Executive were to undertake the responsibility as the main provider for new-build housing.
The situation would be even better had the Housing Executive, over the last 10 years, not needed to spend £3·8 million on repairing properties as a result of bomb damage, or if they had not had to spend £20 million over recent years on the special purchase of evacuated dwelling scheme. When we are talking about these issues, a whole range of matters need to be taken into account.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Is the Minister aware that his reputation of being capable of dealing with the issue of housing, not only in West Belfast but across the Province, has been impugned by an allegation in today's 'News Letter' that the DUP is part of the Executive. Will he confirm that he will never be a partner of IRA/Sinn Féin in any Government in this country?
I can certainly confirm that I will be adhering to the election manifesto pledges under which I was elected, in terms of the basis on which I hold ministerial office. I have not been present and certainly do not intend to be present at any meeting of the Executive. We made it clear that we would not sit in a Government with IRA/Sinn Féin, and that remains our position. In the light of the earlier debate, this is absolutely crystal clear. So far as the form of government we have in Northern Ireland is concerned, those parties who voted for the agreement have to look at how best they believe this serves the people of Northern Ireland. We voted against that agreement, not least because we had concerns about the workability and the efficiency of local administration, and, as far as my ministerial responsibilities are concerned, I can give an assurance that I will be doing everything to advance the issues for which I have responsibility. I am confident that I will be able to do that within the terms of my election manifesto. The bottom line is that whilst others abandon their election pledges, we keep ours.
Order. I am struggling to work out what the connection is with the question. I can only assume the new-build housing refers to the new build of this House. I encourage Members to stick with the spirit of the question.
May I ask the Minister to return to his brief. Can he tell the House what plans he and his Department have for the implementation of the 1998 Housing Order? Given his response to Mr Maskey's question, it would seem that the Housing Executive is at present falling between two stools without the necessary power to regulate the strategic role promised under the housing review some years ago. I would like to hear what plans he and his Department have for dealing with the regulations as laid down in the 1998 Order. Also, it would be good if there were an early statement on general housing policy. There is still - despite the Minister's firm comments - an uncertainty over the role of housing in the future. Given that his party does not have a policy document on housing, and being conscious, as I am sure he is, of the incongruity that that produces, would he not agree that an urgent statement on policy might go some way towards allaying this concern and uncertainty?
The latter part of the Member's question does not bear any comparison to truth and reality. On the main point of his question, I have been looking at housing policy issues. He will be aware that it would be easy for the Department to pick up on issues that have been within the remit of Ministers of the previous Administration. I want to give the Committee and Assembly Members the opportunity to have an input to see how their views correspond with previously settled policy. It would be an insult to Members if we were to present legislation that was prepared by English Ministers and say "There you are; this is what we intend to do." I want a meaningful, consultative process with the Assembly Committee so that it can have an input to legislation, not least because the Committee has to approve that legislation. We want these issues to be properly explored. We have to live with them, and we have received representations on them. I want to ensure that consultation in this regime really means consultation, and that input from elected Members really means input and not simply commenting on a measure that has been decided in advance as a fait accompli.
2. Mr M Robinson asked the Minister for Social Development if he is aware that the places allocated to public representatives on the Laganside Corporation have never reflected the political composition of the areas of Belfast which it covers and if he will be using the opportunities given by the two vacancies which have occurred as the basis to remedy this situation. (AQO 24/99)
The regeneration impact of Laganside is intended to benefit all of Belfast in particular and Northern Ireland in general. Appointments to Laganside Corporation are made under the Laganside Development (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, which provides for not fewer than seven or more than 10 members. One is appointed after consultation with the Belfast Harbour Commissioners and one after consultation with Belfast City Council. The corporation currently has nine members, all of whom were appointed in 1998. There are no immediate plans for new appointments to the corporation. I have not had the opportunity to fully consider this issue to date, but I will bear Members' comments in mind at the appropriate time.
Mr M Robinson:
Can the Minister give an assurance that his Department will, in future, take on board representations made in relation to these issues?
As I said in earlier answers, I will look carefully at all representations made on this issue as well as on others. The issue of appointments to Laganside, and, indeed, to a range of other public bodies over the years, has caused some concern. We are casting no aspersions on the merits or integrity of anyone who has served on any of these bodies. I am speaking in terms of the balance of appointments between public representatives and those who are non-elected. Members will be aware that for appointments to Laganside we are bound by legislation and the code of practice and guidance of the office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Unlike certain other appointments made recently to public bodies, it is not a question of making appointments willy-nilly without following that guidance and code of practice. Those considerations must be borne in mind.